Change of Command season just wrapped up at my local military base. This summer as in those past, I gathered with crowds large and small in a hangar or at the officer’s club to bid farewell to one leader while welcoming another to my community. It is always a bittersweet time for me.
American Warrior Radio listeners are a sharp bunch, so let’s begin with a quiz; what is worse than pissing off a General? Read on..
My entire adult life I have believed it is the duty of those of who never served to support those that do. Hence, it comes as a surprise when military members at these ceremonies deliver a hearty handshake and heartfelt thanks for what I do to support them and their families. It is, after all, my duty.
Upon further reflection though, I came to realize that I have received infinitely much more than I have given in that relationship. In my “day” job I am constantly maneuvering in the world of bureaucracies and politics. This is not generally the environment where one builds a great amount of confidence in the nature of the human condition.
However, of the over one hundred changes of command and retirement ceremonies I have attended, there are very few I have left where I did not feel inspired and re-energized. The reward I receive from being among these young men & women far exceeds the cost of taking a few hours out of my day job to be present for their ceremonies.
Seeing a grown, proven warrior on the verge of tears as they relinquish command and receive a final salute from their airmen is not something one sees very often in the civilian workplace. At one event, the outgoing commander dedicated the entirety of his comments to reminding those in uniform about the meaning of honor and doing the right thing even when it is difficult. Pretty heady stuff.
One speech I will never forget was a ceremony for a Pararescue squadron. The commander reminded his airmen about a mission where 10 seconds meant the difference between life and death. TEN SECONDS. Time is the one commodity most precious to us all. I can always make more money. I cannot make more time. To this day in my business dealings I am reminded of the importance of being just as judicious with someone’s time as their money.
Oh yeah, the quiz question. There have been two occasions where I have received what I consider to be the greatest honor of my time supporting the military. The first was at a banquet when the Commander of a fast attack submarine called his sailors to attention, presented me with a ball cap emblazoned with my nickname and publicly called me “Shipmate”.
The other was serving as Honorary Commander to a General Officer in the United States Air Force. If you are not familiar with the program, think of a two year long “take a business person to work day” for Air Force leaders. In our very first meeting I emphasized that I had absolutely no interest in being a “prom queen” Honorary Commander – I wanted to work and contribute. He accepted and took me at my word. It was an enlightening adventure for a civilian who considered himself already well versed in the military.
“My” General was responsible for several bases across the country. During my tenure, I traveled to as many as my time and budget would allow in order to increase my knowledge of their missions and reinforce how much we as civilians appreciate their service and sacrifice. As an Honorary Commander I saw it my duty to do so. (For those JAG officers reading this, I did so on my own dime!)
One of the first lessons was that an Air Force General does not get his own plane. (C’mon. It’s the Air Force for Pete’s sake!) On one occasion his staff informed me that they were having trouble getting the General on commercial flights from a somewhat remote base back to his headquarters in time for another important meeting. The base was on my visit list so I volunteered to drive over and bring him back with me. It would be quicker to make the five hour drive than it would be to get him to the nearest major airport and struggle with airline logistics.
For those of you that have never passed through a Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint with a uniformed General in the passenger seat, it is an experience I would HIGHLY recommend. But what REALLY struck me was what happened when we arrived back at headquarters. He had noticed that I was shifting uncomfortably during the long drive due to some leg cramping. Right there in the headquarters parking lot, in his dress blues, he got down on the sidewalk and demonstrated a stretching technique that had helped him after some of the thousands of hours he spent in an F-16 cockpit. Name me ONE private sector CEO that would have done that. It was a gesture that exemplified a true servant leader.
I had several other opportunities to assist with morale and welfare events for the airmen in “my” command. It was rewarding to be called upon as part of the team and trusted to complete an important mission. My introduction into their world was warm, open and genuine. They did everything possible to make me feel like a member of their “tribe”.
But I knew I wasn’t and never would be.
So all the way around the barn and through the cow pasture we come back to the quiz; what is worse than pissing off a General? The answer; pissing off a General’s wife!
During my remarks at an evening barbeque to bid farewell to Mr. & Mrs. General, I made the mistake of repeating those words. “I am not one of you and will never be.”
The look that she gave me was one of absolute shock. As if she was thinking “You ungrateful lout! After all we have done for you, we welcomed you into our home!”
I stand by those words.
You see, I HAVE knelt next to a bleeding man and witnessed the very moment when the soul departs the body. However, that experience took place on the hot asphalt of an Arizona freeway, not on a dusty or muddy field of battle.
While I HAVE been in a situation that taught me a rifle sounds very different when fired at you than it does when you are squeezing the trigger, an angry rancher will never compare to a fanatical enemy combatant.
My wife asks me to be careful each day when I venture out into city traffic. But while testimony before an elected body can sometimes get pretty sporty, the likelihood of me losing my life doing my job is infinitely smaller than those who don the uniform each day.
And, as a wildland firefighter I learned that on occasion things can go sideways and one’s life may depend on the training and situational awareness of the man or woman in the line next to you. (On two blazes it did.) I know the one of a kind bond that is cemented from being tested on the razor’s edge of a life and death situation. I know that when you have “Been there done that” you don’t have to wear the t-shirt. If you know, you know.
But I have never worn the uniform and taken the oath. And I never will. I have not volunteered to leave my family so that civilians could spend time with theirs. I have not pledged decades of my life and perhaps life itself, to defend the freedoms which so many civilians take for granted. I will never be one of you.
“My” General was promoted to several higher positions of authority and my time as an Honorary Commander came to an end. After “retiring”, I experienced a great sense of loss. While continuing to support local military families at every opportunity, I was no longer operating at that level of impact I felt I had as a General’s civilian counterpart. It stung and created a hole in my life.
Recently I had a 20 year Delta Force Veteran on American Warrior Radio. He spoke of his struggles transitioning to civilian life. He had lost his “tribe” and no longer felt a sense of purpose. During the interview my wife texted me two words; “Sound familiar?” I assumed she meant that those sentiments expressed by the guest were ones I often heard when interviewing retired military members.
But upon arriving home she clarified. “No..that is YOU! You have been feeling the same lack of purpose with the loss of your tribe”. Perhaps my new purpose was a plain as the microphone in front of my face; to continue and expand American Warrior Radio’s broadcasts so that as many civilians as possible can hear these important messages and begin to understand those who serve. To use my three decades of experience supporting the military to serve as a translator between those who have taken the oath and those who haven’t.
Thanks to my wife’s superior deduction ability, that Delta Force operator brought new purpose and energy to my own life as a civilian. Just another example of how he and countless others like him have given me far more than I could ever return to them and their families. It is a duty I take seriously and hope other civilians will as well.